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Old 02-03-2011, 06:56 PM
SYS SYS started this thread
 
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This is one topic that I've been thinking seriously about since the early '80s when all sorts of magazines and newspapers started splashing "Whiz Asian Kids" and "Model Minority" on their cover stories. Here's my take in the form of a book review on the latest splashy story, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. If it's a bit too long for your tolerance, my apology in advance...

I’m a first generation Korean-American immigrant; like Amy Chua, a Harvard (and Berkeley) educated “Tiger Dad” raising two cubs. I see the mirror reflections of myself in reading her book, and I understand it all too well what it takes to be a Tiger Dad from a similar cultural point of view. I’ve taken many of same steps as Chua, too. Up to a certain point, that is. I have two boys who, like Sophia and Lulu, are straight-A students. My thirteen year-old plays piano and viola while the eleven year-old plays piano and violin.
Like Lulu, too, the younger one started violin early on (when he was five), is the youngest concertmaster of his youth orchestra (where his older brother is principal violist) and won a respectable string concerto competition when he was ten. No, I didn’t make my boys practice four to six hours a day; and I never made them take their instruments along on our family vacations. Yes, they still play their instruments – with growing passion. I hope Lulu picks up her violin again someday – of her own accord.

The most brilliant thing about Chua’s book is the timing itself. Whether intentional or not, it comes at a most critical period -- when the U.S. education system is being seen as dilapidated with a litany of disappointing reports and studies of how the U.S. kids are faring poorly in comparison to their international counterparts. The latest major report to hit the mass media, Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, prompted Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, to call the study “an absolute wake-up call to America.” Throw in the current state of national anxiety in the widespread perception of the Decline and the Fall of American Empire vis-à-vis the rapidly rising superpower, China, you can see the inspirational source of Chua’s dare.

Chua’s Battle Hymn is either a source of deep pride or utter embarrassment to Chinese-Americans, as evidenced by highly polarized reactions among them. The reason for such dramatically divergent receptions among Chinese-Americans is entirely Chua’s fault: while Chua thinks and writes as if she represents a typical product of Chinese-American education system, Confucian values, traditions, and philosophy, she fails to understand the simple differentiation between the “Chinese way” and “Amy’s way.” The fact that she lumps these into the same package, “Chinese Mother,” is what riled so many Chinese and Asian-American readers. Indeed, they recognize much of the “Chinese way” in what she says and does. But then when Chua crosses the Chinese border into the unfamiliar land of “Mommie Dearest,” there’s the cultural disconnect.

It’s quite ironic that the book starts off with the three year old Sophia being able to recognize the words in the title of Sartre’s famous play, No Exit. Little did she and Lulu know at the time that the existential play was really going to be about their own future scripts, the characters on actual life’s stage torturing one another: “l’enfer, c’est les autres” (“Hell is other people.”) At one point Chua says, “Even I had to admit that it sometimes got hard.” Either utter foolishness or remarkable candor, she made sure she’s the cynosure at every page. “I’m sure it’s [the book] all about you anyway,” as Lulu sarcastically but correctly mutters. Chua’s vicarious living through her daughters is simply explained away as justifiable “because in Chinese thinking, the child is the extension of the self.” Yes, especially if the child happens to be of the dispensable and malleable female gender.

What Chua meant by “bitter clash of cultures” is most poignantly surfaced when Chua discusses Florence, her mother-in-law, and her way of raising children. One thing that is glaringly missing in all this is the question of Jed, Chua’s husband. Even by self-glorifying Chua’s accounts, the readers can deduce that he’s arguably more intelligent, more accomplished and talented – and here’s the kicker – he’s more balanced, EQ, IQ, and otherwise, than Chua. I suspect that Jed was born in the Year of the Pig and not in the Year of the Monkey. Whatever the year of his Chinese zodiac, he provided the badly needed stability in his, I mean, her, household.

For a highly intelligent woman like Chua, it’s rather surprising that she was so viscerally opposed to Florence who brought up an enviously successful son, Jed. A tree can be told by the fruits it bears. So if Jed is more successful and well balanced than Chua, wouldn’t it then make sense to pay attention to what Florence has to say about how to raise successful and well balanced children? If Chua had listened to her for once, then I’m sure Florence would have had her greatest wish fulfilled before her death, namely, having just one full day to spend with each of her granddaughters. That was heartbreaking. Apparently, the Confucian virtue of filial piety only applies to the Chinese side of her family. As Chua herself mused at one point, what would her girls think about all this twenty years from now? What would the girls think about their own childhood? Chua saw “childhood as a training period, a time to build character, and invest for the future.” By contrast, Florence believed that “childhood should be full of spontaneity, freedom, discovery, and experience.” Who’s right, the Chinese mom or the Western mom? The simplest answer is: both. How each parent balances the best of both worldviews and then adapts carefully to each individual child according to his or her personality and aptitude is the daily struggle and the real challenge.

Although Chua didn’t herself know why she spent a good portion of the book on her dogs, and didn’t have the answer to Sophia’s question, “Why are they in the book?,” it’s hard to avoid the feeling that, in spite of her self-mocking and self-parodying humor, Chua was training her own daughters in many ways akin to Pavlov’s dogs. Children are not born tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which parents can leave whatever egotistical or vicarious paw prints they want to make. For all the hours Chua shackles her daughters to this controlled learning, for all the hours she unwittingly robs them of other areas of critical and significant development. Chua proudly lists thirty-nine major cities around the globe to which she and Jed took their daughters by the time they were just twelve and nine. But other than being able to recite them alphabetically by memory, what have Sophia and Lulu gotten out of their impressive globetrotting? Other than remembering how they had to practice their instruments in each of these trips in a hotel, bitter fights with mom that dragged on long enough to miss museum’s visiting hours and dinner? What do they remember in terms of people they’ve met, the cultural differences, customs, foods, languages? In other words, what have they experienced? Would they turn out to be “well rounded” like Chua herself wants them to become – if she understands what that means at all? Or age well into emotionally stunted adults by a lack of interpersonal people management, group dynamics, and socio-political navigating skills that would only steer them into safer Ivory Tower career havens in New Haven?

As a recipient of Harvard Magazine by virtue of being an alumnus, I remember reading a rather surprising main feature story more than a decade ago about “Harvard failures.” It was about Harvard college kids who dropped out and turned to driving taxis or washing skyscraper windows in Boston, NY and other places. For kids whose entire lives were spent on methodical training and regimen in a balloon-like controlled environment, the sensation of feeling alive for once must have provided the desperate soteriological escape. In a recent Korean language newspaper, there was a report of an astounding number of Asian-American Ivy League students, particularly Korean-Americans (with whopping 44%), who dropped out of school between 1985 and 2007. One of the analytical explanations for this phenomenon is that, for many of these students, getting into Harvard and its sibling Ivy League colleges has been their entire lives’ purpose. Once the purpose has been met, there was no other meaningful purpose for them. Or, add to that, perhaps they simply lacked the people and group dynamics skills and choice making skills that are required for a successful college life and survivor. When the aforementioned PISA rankings came out with Asian countries dominating the top, it raised more a worrisome and unsettling question for me than pride as an Asian-American: at what true and unspoken cost?

Only after a series of costly pyrrhic battles that culminated at a restaurant in Russia with her final capitulation, Chua, to her credit, saw that nothing is worth losing her daughter. Witnessing her favorite younger sister, Katrine, who had devoted all her childhood and youth in training for a successful future Chinese style, pouring everything she had into earning three Harvard degrees and a promising career at Stanford, only to be faced with the grim prospect of losing it all to leukemia. Watching Katrine valiantly fighting off the disease, hanging dearly onto each day and savoring every minute of her remaining mortality with her own young children, Chua clearly saw how precious and fleeting life is. The moment of harsh realization and awakening must have been heart-wrenching.

Chua’s Battle Hymn best serves as a case study, as a warning to us all parents that any form of extreme parenting, Chinese or Western, is not the answer. Remember, Battle Hymn “was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones.” Perhaps it’s now Jed’s turn to speak.
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Old 02-03-2011, 08:13 PM
 
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I went into Barnes and Noble over the weekend with every intention of buying this book. But I went to the magazine counter first and the new issue of Architectural Digest was out and I got sidetracked with drooling over window treatments and forgot all about it.

I've feared this book was going to be one big, "My kid is smarter than your kid". She opens with a reference to her daughter recognizing Sartre? Seriously? Well Camoooooooooo! (A little existentialist humor for the masses.)

Dang. Glad I saved my money. If I want bragging I can go next door and listen to the lady who breeds championship Arabians and it won't cost me a dime.
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Old 02-04-2011, 08:40 AM
 
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Cliff notes version...balance is the key.

Humor aside, it was a very well thought out and articulate post that serves as a solid anithesis to Chua's extreme parenting philosophy.

I look at it this way. You can divide learning into two categories; knowledge and experience. Neither is an effectual and powerful tool without the other. You need experience to know how to apply the knowledge and create and you need knowledge to shape the experience and place it into perspective.

Eastern culture places a greater emphasis upon the knowledge and ignores the experience. Western culture places its emphasis upon the experience and aims to derive knowledge from that experience. I happen to personally believe that while the western idea may not provide the best results on stanardized tests, it does create the "better" person.

It was Albert Einstein, arguably the greatest mind to ever live, who said, "The only source of knowledge is experience." For that reason I believe that while children raised using Chua's methods may be able to explain the theory of relativity, they could never have created it. Even now, China for all it's efforts to industrialize education and create the most educated children in the world, often finds itself relying upon stolen technology and pirated ideas.

So, what is knowledge without the ability to create?
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Old 02-04-2011, 09:45 AM
SYS SYS started this thread
 
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Nicely summed up, NJGOAT. Just about the only way that China can produce Nobel Prize winners -- one indicator of creativity and innovation -- is by someone sitting in a jail cell for pro-democracy activism.
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Old 02-04-2011, 10:19 AM
 
Location: Western Washington
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Great posts! Yes, if everything our children "learn", comes from books, they are simply always "taking someone else's word" for everything they know. How can these children ever strive out on their own, if they are never allowed to create their own experiences, their own personal databases of what works and what doesn't work? I have certainly found, in my life thus far, that I have learned many things from my mistakes. Let children make them. Let them learn from them. Expose them to many different things so that they can decide for themselves, what it is they are meant to do....meant to be. Choosing everything for our children, based on what WE want, is like being reincarnated in someone else, while we're still alive!
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Old 02-04-2011, 10:39 AM
 
Location: New York City
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OP, Your post was interesting, thoughtful and well-written. I have some questions for you if you don't mind. You mention being educated at Harvard and Berkeley. Do you think you got there because you were "pushed" by your family or were you just this highly motivated kid? You also mention that your children were not made to practice their instruments 4-6 hrs a day. How much did they practice each day? How do you feel about playdates, sleepovers and school plays? Do your children get to choose their activities? Thanks.
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Old 02-04-2011, 12:07 PM
SYS SYS started this thread
 
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Originally Posted by gimme it View Post
OP, Your post was interesting, thoughtful and well-written. I have some questions for you if you don't mind. You mention being educated at Harvard and Berkeley. Do you think you got there because you were "pushed" by your family or were you just this highly motivated kid? You also mention that your children were not made to practice their instruments 4-6 hrs a day. How much did they practice each day? How do you feel about playdates, sleepovers and school plays? Do your children get to choose their activities? Thanks.
Growing up in South Korea I was literally a straight-F student. I was a very willful child, and I only did what was meaningful to me: playing. Of course my parents were very concerned so they hired tutor after tutor for me, but each of them gave up on me. One particular tutor gave me an ultimatum one day: either study or get a severe whacking. I thought he was bluffing so I chose the latter. Well, he stepped outside the house, came back with a branch off a nearby tree, and proceeded to whack me good. Then he quit. After that incident, no tutors would take me on to my parents' bitter disappointment.

I'd most definitely have been a total failure if my family hadn't emigrated to the U.S. My first few weeks into the U.S. school, I kept waiting for a corporal punishment that was a part of my daily school ritual back in South Korea. In any case, when I saw how my parents were struggling to make a living in this country for the family, I told myself that getting a good education was the only way to go. I studied 12 hours a day and earned my way to college and grad schools. So my motivation came late but still early enough...

When I started my boys on musical instruments, they practiced only about 30 minutes a day until they turned 9 when the average daily practice time became about 1 hour. It wasn't until after my younger son won his first concerto competition that he decided to become a bit more serious by practicing about 2 hours a day -- on his own. I never pushed them. I consider myself a very good motivator/coach/dad, and I always gave them a meaning behind why they do what they do. I know from my own personal experience that no amount of discipline is going to be effective when there's no meaning for a child. That's where the Asian tradition of education fails so miserably, at least for me. All the playing time during my childhood, however, made me a very imaginative and a creative person.

As far as sleepovers go, I have no problem with it as long as I know the hosting family really well. To be honest, though, I'm not a huge fan of sleepovers where kids just end up playing video games late into the night and there's no quality behind the socializing. I allow playdates but only on Friday and weekends and lot more during school breaks. As for school plays, I actually encourage my boys to grab at every chance. When I read about how Amy Chua felt about this, I thought she was a nut case. Yes, I allow my boys to choose their own activities as long as they hold some value, and I also have no problem "quitting" when I feel that they aren't interested in doing something even if highly talented and successful at it. My younger son, for instance, wasn't all that interested in chess although he had won three different state titles and was USCF ranked in top 50 in the nation in his age group and moving up rapidly. It was a bit tough for me, but my decision to have him quit was swift. The same thing with swimming. After coaching them really hard myself for three years, I had them quit when I saw that they weren't all that interested in swimming competitively. They were only doing it to please me. Tennis, on the other hand, is something they really enjoy, so I'm now busy coaching them.

Last edited by SYS; 02-04-2011 at 12:56 PM..
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Old 02-04-2011, 03:36 PM
 
Location: So Ca
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Originally Posted by SYS View Post
Remember, Battle Hymn “was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones.”
It was? I read only the Time magazine review of it and thought that, as its columnist wrote, it was supposed to be a memoir, not a manual. Chua admitted she made some mistakes. (Frankly, having already raised our kids, I think Chua has some of it right.) Anyway, wondered what you think of this column: "An American in Shanghai reports: I'm glad my kid has a tiger mom": Tiger Daughter: American Dad on Raising a Child in China - TIME
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Old 02-04-2011, 03:44 PM
 
Location: New York City
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Thanks for your responsel, SYS! I love the way you write. Very readable! Maybe you should be the one writing the best seller book

My child just started playing the piano, and we are lucky if she practices 3x per week for 10 minutes. Between lots of homework and 3 after school classes/activities there doesn't seem to be much time. I am always astounded when kids are able to find time for practice. I also want her in bed by 8:45 or so, that makes it harder.

You did the right thing by letting your son's quit something they stopped enjoying. My guess is that in the future, they will find their way back, but on their own terms. They sound exceptionally talented.

As for sleepovers, if you host them then you can control the video game playing. However awful it is, I think kids, boys in particular, bond over videos games. Everything in moderation, I say!
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Old 02-04-2011, 09:10 PM
SYS SYS started this thread
 
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Originally Posted by CA4Now View Post
It was? I read only the Time magazine review of it and thought that, as its columnist wrote, it was supposed to be a memoir, not a manual. Chua admitted she made some mistakes. (Frankly, having already raised our kids, I think Chua has some of it right.) Anyway, wondered what you think of this column: "An American in Shanghai reports: I'm glad my kid has a tiger mom": Tiger Daughter: American Dad on Raising a Child in China - TIME
My original review of Chua's book was 7 pages long. One of the things I decided to leave out in my effort to whittle it down to less than half of the original review was this:

"The prevalent confusion about whether the Battle Hymn is a memoir or a how-to-parent guide is entirely Chua’s fault. She’s confused to begin with and has not articulated the reason why she started writing this book except that she started it “the day after” she and her family got back from Russia. This was the trip that ultimately transformed the Tiger Mother into a rabbit mom, the turning point that liberated Lulu, saving her from a potential tragic ending. “I didn’t know why I was doing it [writing the book],” she writes. But I imagine the experience of her devastating “defeat” at a restaurant in Russia had triggered something in her: the urge to write the book as a form of self-therapy, an emotional catharsis. Yet, not only the book’s back dust jacket has “How to be a Tiger Mother” in large print, but throughout the book, Chua seems to be just tickled with so many other parents asking her for the secret of her success: “A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it.”

Ultimately, it doesn't really matter.

As for the Time article, I don't sense the same kind of Chua's mania. If anything, it's talking about a reasonably disciplined approach to raising a smart kid -- just like I'm trying to do with my own kids. Abby's parents, for example, do not call their daughter "garbage" in public as a motivator. Abby's parents allow her to play, whereas for Chua that's the dirtiest four-letter word in her vocabulary. She even goes to her daughter Lulu's school to pull her out during those time-wasting classes like P.E. and art in order to make her practice violin longer.

There's time to educate our kids in a disciplined and methodical approach, and there's time for them to explore and taste the world around them, to imagine, to create, to be themselves. As I stated in my review, extreme parenting, Chinese or Western, is not the way to go. There has to be a balance of Yin and Yang, which Chua did everything she could to throw off.
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